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No room for outsiders in Indian politics

By the time Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister, he had probably reached a better understanding of government than most Indian politicians, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Sep 27, 2009 01:24 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Enough has been said and written about Shashi Tharoor and the austerity drive: why does he use terms like cattle class? Why does he need privacy in a deluxe hotel? Who is the holy cow? Etc.

But while I’m mostly on Tharoor’s side on this one, the contretemps seems to me to be one more reminder of how difficult it is for successful professionals to fit into the Indian political mainstream. They usually don’t understand the system, they rarely master its idiom, and most times, the system unites to repel them.

You may not think this. If you look at Indian politics today, it seems full of bright, articulate professionals, many of whom speak good English and all of whom love to appear on television. Many people argue that politics is now full of smart young guys who have replaced the dhoti-wallahs of old.

But this is an illusion.

One of the most worrying aspects of Indian politics is how much of a family business it has become. Sons follow their fathers into Parliament with a depressing regularity. Many of them are relatively well-educated — Doon School, an American University, perhaps, or St Stephen’s — but they are not professionals in any significant sense of the term.

Few of them have achieved anything of note in their lives. And all of them owe their prominence less to any merit and more to their fathers.

We con ourselves into believing that their public school accents mark a break with the past. In fact, they represent the opposite. They remind us that in a dynastic political system, the past becomes the future — it just speaks better English.

Most of the Congress’ so-called professionals are no more than dynasts with a sense of entitlement. In other parties, too, professionals are thin on the ground. In such cadre-based parties as the CPM, there is no room for professionals. Most leaders are full-time party workers. To a large extent, this is true of the BJP. The likes of L.K. Advani and Atal Behari Vajpayee were full-time swayamsevaks and rarely had lives outside of politics.

Among the new generation of BJP leaders (which in the BJP means people of 60 or thereabouts) there are a few outstanding professionals — Arun Jaitley, Arun Shourie, Ravi Shankar Prasad, etc. — but they are always taunted by full-time party workers about their lack of a political base. And when the BJP does get around to finding a permanent replacement for Advani, my guess is that it will be someone like Narendra Modi who has never had a life outside of politics.

The regional parties are even more dynasty-driven than the Congress so you’ll rarely find many professionals among them.

On the whole, they follow the iron law of Indian politics: to go far you must either be a professional politician or the son or daughter of one.

There are categories that serve as exceptions. There is a long tradition of civil servants entering politics but I would argue that they are not really from outside the system. By the time Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister, he had probably reached a better understanding of government than most Indian politicians. And there are individuals — P. Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal, who are successful lawyers, for instance — who have bucked the trend. But by and large, the iron law of politics holds.

Have we lost out as a consequence?

That’s a tough one to answer. In the 1980s, many middle-class people were excited when the likes of Arun Nehru and Arun Singh — both from corporate backgrounds — entered politics and rose to the top of the decision-making process.

But neither man was a great success. Arun Singh never lived up to the hopes of his friends, resigned suddenly and then made a bizarre return in a BJP government over a decade later. And Arun Nehru ensured that middle-class people would stop saying things like, “We are much less venal than these dhoti-wallahs.”

Others, who persisted with politics faced sneers from within the system. George Fernandes once dismissed Murli Deora as ‘that man in a gabardine suit’. His remark summed up the contempt that hardcore politicians had for people like Deora who had run successful businesses.

Deora is an exception. Not only did he win several Lok Sabha elections and run the Congress party in Bombay with distinction, he is now a Cabinet minister. Most professionals, however, take the line that politics owes them a position, expect to get Rajya Sabha tickets, are horrified by the political process and, frankly, have few ideological convictions and will join any party that guarantees them a ministership.

To that extent, the contempt that politicians have for them is understandable. You can’t expect other people to do the dirty work of winning a general election and then parachute down into a ministerial post. One of the more reassuring things about this government is that nearly all the professionals who occupy ministerial berths have been made to fight Lok Sabha elections: Chidambaram, Sibal, and yes, even Tharoor, who won an impressive victory despite being a political novice.

But equally, it is true that the system unites to discredit and handicap anybody it sees as an outsider. The glee with which professional politicians have seized on Tharoor’s admittedly ill-advised remarks is just one instance.

But there is a more celebrated example. I could be wrong about this but as far as I know, Rajiv Gandhi was the only Prime Minister of India to have ever held a salaried job (outside the civil service and academics), had income tax deducted at source and was familiar with the kinds of problems that middle-class people face on a daily basis.

As is well-known, Rajiv was a reluctant dynast, trying at first to turn his back on the politics that his mother and brother loved, and holding down a steady job at Indian Airlines. When he did become Prime Minister, he lacked the understanding of politics that an early entry into the field would have given him.

Thus, he thought less like a politician and more like a product of his professional middle-class environment. As soon as the system sensed this, it united against him, working to frustrate his initiatives and sabotaging him from within.

Tragically, by the time he learnt how to handle the system, he was no longer able to claim the prime ministership that could have been his in 1991. But his experience serves as a lesson for all professionals and outsiders in politics.

If even Rajiv Gandhi, son of Indira Gandhi, and possessor of the greatest mandate in Indian history, could be sabotaged by the political system, then how much room is there for genuine professionals?

The views expressed by the author are personal